Human Dignity Beyond Sentiment: Part 3, The Utilitarian Threat

The belief in human dignity is so widespread it might be assumed there just isn't any other plausible foundation for secular, humanistic morality and politics. But there is.

Utilitarianism is an ethical theory the main premise of which is that the right/moral course of action is the action that produces the most good. This criterion of the maximization of the good makes utilitarianism a brand of what is called consequentialism in ethics, where the "right" course of action is determined by its outcome or consequence. By contrast, the reigning moral consensus of Christianity and humanism is deontological rather than consequentialist. In deontological ethics, an action is right or wrong because it is following some moral law or rule. For example, the moral rule "treat human beings with care," because they posses "rights" or are bearers of the Image of God, is deontological rather than consequentialist: the focus is upon upholding a moral rule and commitment rather than weighing or measuring the outcome of implementing that rule.

The point here is that there are other ways or ordering our moral lives that aren't rooted in human dignity. Other moral worlds are available to us.

Now in practice these worlds tend to blend together in our lives. Sometimes our moral thinking is deontological. We follow a moral rule like "It's wrong to lie." And sometimes our thinking is consequentialist, "I told a lie in this instance because telling the truth would have made things worse."

Ethical theories can also be hybrids. Throughout its long history, utilitarian ethics has been built atop the deontological, Judeo-Christian foundation of human dignity. "Maximizing the good" has generally been assumed to mean "maximizing the human good" or "maximizing the good of human persons." In such understandings of utilitarianism, Christian thinking is being smuggled into the consequentialist system. Because of this, there have been utilitarian thinkers who have tried to expunge human dignity from the theory to create a pure consequentialist framework.

An example of this is the work of the famous utilitarian ethicist Peter Singer. The most noteworthy aspect of Singer's ethical thinking is that he doesn't put human dignity and value at the center of his moral reflections. Singer rejects what is called speciesism, discrimination based on species membership, were the members of our species are considered to be morally more important than members of another species. For example, if a house was burning and you ran in to rescue the baby and not the dog, because you believe the baby to be morally more valuable than the dog because the baby is a human being, that choice is a form of speciesism.

Speciesism, as an ethical problem, plays a huge part in Singer's seminal work Animal Liberation, a classic, ground-breaking work in the animal rights movement. 

Singer replaces "human worth" as the ground of ethical reflection with a consideration of suffering, human and animal. Since animals can suffer, their pain must be included in our ethical considerations. This seems both humane and reasonable. And yet, some snarly questions quickly follow. Suffering is not uniform. So if you're not going to draw a line between human suffering and animal, what criterion are you going to use to measure the amount of suffering a given ethical choice might produce? Singer answers that question by turning to the issue of cognitive and emotional capacity. Generally speaking, human suffering is "greater" than animal suffering because our inner lives are fuller and richer. A greater cognitive and emotional range creates a greater capacity for suffering. Notice here how species membership is being rejected as the ground of ethical thinking and is being replaced with a ranking of mental and emotional capacity.

So far, so good, until you press on to note that there are instances where it seems that animals have a greater capacity for suffering than certain human beings, and therefore should rank higher in our moral considerations. Some humans, due to age, damage, illness, or disability, have diminished mental capacities, lowering their capacity for suffering in the form of mental and emotional anguish. Thus, their suffering is weighed less in Singer's system.

Working through Singer's pure, consequentialist logic brings us to some of his most notorious and controversial conclusions. For example, in his classic book Practical Ethics (Second Edition), Singer takes up the issue of infanticide, with a particular focus on children born with serve abnormalities. Since these persons are both 1) babies and 2) possessing severe abnormalities, an ethical case can be made for killing them. This outcome is reached because the criterion being used is a capacity for suffering rather than a prior to commitment to human dignity, no matter how diminished and degraded in the eyes of others.

And simply being a baby makes a difference, even if born healthy. Since babies lack the mental and emotional capacities of adults and other animals, babies rank lower on the suffering metric, and therefore lower in our moral considerations. It's simple logic once you accept the premises of the system. And it's this utilitarian approach to infant suffering that allows Singer to write:
No infant - disabled or not - has as strong a claim to life as beings capable of seeing themselves as distinct entities, existing over time.
Now, let me pause and say a couple of things here.

First, there is much in the work of Peter Singer that I admire. His work on animal rights and effective altruism are laudable. 

Second, I'm not necessarily criticizing Singer's ethics or utilitarianism in this post. You might be a utilitarian and want to defend Singer. Fine, but I don't really care.

My point in this tour of utilitarian ethics is to illustrate a couple of things.

First, human dignity isn't an empirical fact. Due to the Judeo-Christian tradition, belief in human dignity is so widespread it can seem like a fact. We tend to assume that no sane person could even question it. Doubting human dignity seems like doubting gravity. But, as Singer's work illustrates, people have and do doubt human dignity. Dignity is very contestable and is, in fact, contested.

There are non-Christian readers who are so thoroughly christian in their worldview who will think my concerns in this series about human dignity being "vulnerable" is just so much hysteria and alarmism. Dignity for these non-Christian christians is as solid and as empirical as rocks and trees. Who could possibly doubt it? So all this worrying and pearl clutching about human dignity being vulnerable because the metaphysical foundations of Christianity have been rejected is just nonsense.

But as Peter Singer's work illustrates, it's not nonsense. There are other moral worlds we could inhabit, worlds where human dignity is quite purposefully banished from consideration. There are worlds where no infant, disabled or not, has a strong claim to life. Such worlds are out there on the horizon of possibility. And one of the noteworthy features of Singer's ethics is how intentionally and ruthlessly secular it is, which suggests that the appeal or these sorts of moral worlds will only grow over time as our post-Christian world walks further and farther away from Christian metaphysics.

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